Beyond ecotourism: What the travel sector can really do for development

An airplane flies over Singapore. Photo by: Catherine Cheney / Devex

Tourism is on the rise in Sri Lanka, after a three-decade war that kept travelers away from the island nation ended just eight years ago. After landing in Colombo, tourists tend to stay in one of the resorts on the coastline, complete with ocean views and curry-lined buffets, before moving to a hotel or bed and breakfast closer to tourist destinations such as the Temple of the Tooth, Adam’s Peak or Galle Fort. But between these destinations, on either side of the two-lane roads filled with cars overtaking one another or in the villages near national parks where elephants roam, there are communities that miss out entirely on the benefits of the growing number of tourists visiting their country.

Last Wednesday, Airbnb announced that it had signed a memorandum of understanding with the World Bank to examine how alternative accommodation options such as home-sharing can boost the inclusion of rural economies in tourism and hospitality, beginning with pilot projects in India and Sri Lanka. Now, vacationers who want to explore the rolling green hills of tea country, visit its many temples or watch the whales off the southern coast can do more to support local economies as they travel — and actors in the global development community are working to make this local support a global trend.

“For us, tourism is not merely an activity of leisure and an opportunity for the rich to flaunt their wealth in diverse places,” Edmund Bartlett, Jamaica’s minister of tourism, said at the Tourism Knowledge Exchange at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., last week, where the partnership was announced. “It is critical to our lifeblood, central to our economies, and vital for our well-being.”

The United Nations has named 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, building on references to tourism in three of the Sustainable Development Goals, and recognizing its contribution across all the SDGs. The designation presents an opportunity both to understand the existing impact of tourism on development, and to explore partnerships that might ensure that tourism — and the vast sums of money spent on it each year, such as $1.2 trillion in tourist spending in 2015 — benefits developing countries.

Less than 1 percent of official development assistance is allocated to tourism globally, but the development community is uniquely positioned to move the sector toward inclusive growth, and to mobilize private sector investment in tourism that promotes the SDGs. The need to do so is becoming all the more critical as tourism to emerging markets grows, experts told Devex. The U.N. World Tourism Organization expects it will surpass tourism to advanced economies by 2020, and the market share of tourism to emerging economies will expand to 57 percent of international arrivals by 2030.

Every Six Senses property is focusing on one SDG. At Six Senses Laamu, it’s Life Below Water.

Life above water, life below water

The Maldives is the country most dependent on tourism in the world. The money spent in the resorts scattered across the cluster of islands in the Indian Ocean accounts for nearly 80 percent of its gross domestic product. Fishing and tourism are the two key revenue generators, and those sectors are intrinsically linked. Extreme weather, coral bleaching and coastal erosion pose threats to both major industries in a country that is home to 1,192 islands, most of which lie less than a meter above rising sea levels.

Guests who travel to Six Senses Laamu, a remote luxury resort, travel to Male — capital of the Maldives — before taking another flight to Kadhdhoo Airport in the Laamu atoll, then boarding a speedboat to an island encircled with the palm-thatched villas and vibrant coral reefs that make the Maldives a destination for snorkelers and divers.

The resort is part of the Six Senses hotel operator, which has assigned each of its properties around the world an SDG to focus on. Six Senses Laamu is tasked with “Life Below Water.” They work toward this goal with direct conservation work to protect grouper fish in partnership with the Blue Marine Foundation; track manta rays with the Manta Trust; and support communities with the Low Emission Climate Resilient Development, a U.N. program that is assisting the Laamu Atoll with local development, including water tanks and solar panels.

Importantly, the resort is also working in partnership with the community, including all 13 schools and 11 island councils, as well as the central atoll council, to discuss why sustainable use of the seas is critical for the tourism and fisheries sectors, and the communities who benefit from them.

On Hithadhoo Island, Six Senses staff in their linen uniforms gave a presentation to schoolchildren about coral reefs — first with a Powerpoint slideshow, then outside, where the children played games using string and pictures to understand the food chain of the fish their families rely on as their main source of protein.

On a “back of house tour” at the property, Megan O'Beirne, sustainability officer, made the point that life below water depends on life above water — which is why Six Senses guests drink desalinated water out of reusable glass bottles, as part of an effort led by the resort to eradicate all single-use plastic across the atoll by 2020.

Unfortunately, some of the large hotel chains that dominate the industry prioritize service and experience over sustainability, even though they can have impact at scale in a way that smaller operations cannot, said Amber Beard, vice president of sustainability at Six Senses, which is headquartered in Bangkok, Thailand.

“Hospitality is a fragmented industry,” she said. “I was hoping the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development would have brought more people together developing more robust goals and adding transparency to the industry but I’m not seeing that yet.”

She explained that one of the reasons there is a lack of accountability in the hospitality sector is that operators and owners are disconnected. Real change can only come when management agreements mandate that properties operate sustainably, driving positive outcomes for the communities and ecosystems around them. Six Senses properties, for example, have sustainability funds that require them to give back to their communities.

The commitment to sustainability and community is part of what led Craig Cogut, chairman and president of Pegasus Capital Advisors, a private equity firm, to acquire Six Senses in 2012. He told Devex he is currently exploring new opportunities to invest in the hospitality industry because he sees such great potential for financial and social returns. The International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development is a unique opportunity to explore blended finance, he explained. For example, the $2.8 billion the International Finance Corporation at the World Bank has invested in tourism might help derisk those investments for the private sector. He echoed comments by others who said tourism is overlooked and undervalued in terms of its potential contributions to environmental conservation and international development.

Women near Hatton, Sri Lanka finish up a shift picking tea leaves. Photo by: Catherine Cheney / Devex

An opportunity for impact

When the tsunami hit Sri Lanka in 2004, journalists wrote about the turtle hatcheries that were sadly wiped out by the waves. But Roderic Mast, chief executive officer of the Oceanic Society and author of the State of the World’s Sea Turtles report, said that while the resorts that set up these hatcheries frame them as a good thing for turtles, they could really be doing much more meaningful work for the species. The hatcheries are emblematic of how some players in the tourism industry pursue conservation projects more as a short-term marketing opportunity than a long-term effort to genuinely improve a habitat or save a species, he told Devex.

“Being a good conservation purveyor doesn’t stop with taking care of a charismatic endangered species in your neighborhood,” Mast said. “It applies to every service the industry provides. As a tourism operator, you have a wonderful opportunity to reach tens of thousands of people.”

Awareness does not always lead to action, he said. One question he is exploring is how to leverage communication to effect behavior change for ocean conservation. For example, during the whale watching tours the Oceanic Society leads to the Farallon Islands in San Francisco, his team introduces a captive audience to steps they can take to protect the ocean.

Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy, the philanthropic arm of the luxury tour operator, invests in education, conservation, health and enterprise in its work around the world. For example, it partners with Project CURE, an NGO that provides doctors and nurses in the developing world with tools and supplies. Last month, it paid $30,000 to ship a container of $400,000 worth of supplies to a maternity ward near one of its lodges in Zambia, which the organization built, and signed a memorandum of understanding with the ministry of health to staff and supply.

Part of what makes the Abercrombie & Kent model of philanthropy different, Executive Director Keith Sproule told Devex, is the community of development professionals who oversee the projects.

“I think the mistake that a lot of development groups and NGOs make [about] tourism is they think about it as being light and fluffy and almost superficial. But the consumer travel choice makes a difference.”

— Keith Sproule, executive director at Abercrombie & Kent

"It's making a huge difference when I can rely on these full-time professionals instead of it being the activity of last summer's intern or the 29th thing on the list of to-dos for the guide that day,” he said.

He emphasized that the tourism sector has a range of components — from tours to transportation, food and beverage to entertainment and hotels — and that each and every one of these areas has the potential to improve lives and livelihoods. But the travel and tourism sector is predicated on ego, he warned: It is built on promoting the uniqueness of a particular product, whether that is a lodge, hotel or destination. Partnerships between the travel and development sectors can take these projects from having promotional value to real development impact, he added.

One of his tips for success is to make sure these are multiyear, programmatic approaches, with MOUs, financial components and metrics for tracking impact.

"I think the mistake that a lot of development groups and NGOs make when they consider tourism is they think about it as being light and fluffy and almost superficial," he told Devex. “But the consumer travel choice makes a difference. We need to look at opportunities to partner, to help improve definitions of what it means to give back, of what travel philanthropy can mean for communities.”

Beyond ecotourism

When screen actor turned climate activist Leonardo DiCaprio purchased Blackadore Caye, an island off the coast of Belize, he sought out a development partner who could help him realize his vision for an island that would be not only sustainable but also ecologically restorative. The destination opens to guests in 2018, complete with luxury off-the-grid homes, a climate research station and restoration programs. The local fishermen, tour guides and ecologists will work with the resort and its guests to reverse the damage caused by overfishing, coastal erosion and the destruction of mangroves.

“People come to appreciate wildlife and the fragile web of our environment, but also to generate jobs and economic development for local people that provide an alternative to using up resources for quick financial gain,” Terry Tamminen, CEO of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, told Devex. “Of course we worry about ‘loving a place to death’ where so many tourists and visitor-serving developments actually have a serious impact on wilderness, but there are many examples of managing that risk and getting a win-win for both people and ecosystems.”

The idea behind ecotourism is that it works to minimize the environmental impact of hotels and tours while also benefiting local communities by hiring from them, working with them on community projects and capacity building. While there is some evidence that this approach can bring revenue to local communities and drive positive conservation outcomes, it is highly dependent on the approach and scale of the effort, with some initiatives delivering only a small boost to local livelihoods and employment and leading to minimal changes in resource use.

Opinion: Packing your bags? Here are 4 ways to become a sustainable tourist

The modern tourist wants to give back to the countries and communities they visit and reduce their impact on the environment. World Tourism Organization Director-General Taleb Rifai, U.N. Environment Executive Director Erik Solheim and U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa explain how to achieve that goal.

Ecotourism is a large and growing market and new models are emerging. Restorative tourism, which aims to reverse environmental damage that has already occurred, is just one example of a new approach to tourism that benefits rather than harms the environment — though critics say consumers could make a bigger impact by donating their holiday money to a conservation organization. But summer is here, trips will be taken, and the question becomes how that money can benefit people and planet.

“The tourism sector as a whole is shifting away from ecotourism in favor of responsible tourism,” said Steve Rocliffe, research and learning manager at Blue Ventures, a social enterprise that works with coastal communities to rebuild fisheries. “Unlike ecotourism, which is a niche offering focused on environmental conservation and improving the welfare of local people, responsible tourism seeks to improve the sustainability of the entire sector.”

The key for impact at scale is for all actors to make sustained improvements — even if that change is incremental — rather than a small group of actors making large investments, he said.

“With responsible tourism gaining traction and with tourists increasingly seeking out environmentally conscious experiences, I think it’s likely that more coastal hotels will be compelled to protect nearby marine resources,” he told Devex.

Rocliffe expects that they will do so in collaboration with government and the local community in order to reduce costs and maximize buy-in.

Six Senses Laamu in the Maldives is working on the Life Below Water Sustainable Development Goal. Photo by: Catherine Cheney / Devex

The motto of the U.N.’s sustainable tourism year is “Travel. Enjoy. Respect.”

UNWTO, led by secretary-general Taleb D. Rifai, is providing practical tips on how to be a responsible traveler, with an emphasis not only on environmental protection but also on benefitting local communities.

And events ranging from the Tourism Knowledge Exchange to the UNWTO awards are raising the profile of the potential for tourism to drive sustainable global development.

At the same time as the event at the World Bank last week, a conference in Manila organized by UNWTO explored a new framework to track progress on sustainable tourism. UNWTO and the World Bank will also organize a conference in Jamaica this November on the role of tourism in development. These are just a few examples from a robust calendar of events meant to promote tourism’s role in development around five key areas: Inclusive and sustainable economic growth; social inclusiveness, employment and poverty reduction; resource efficiency, environmental protection and climate change; cultural values, diversity and heritage; and mutual understanding, peace and security.

When Marriott International, the largest hotel chain in the world, opened a hotel in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, part of the goal of the $45 million, 173 room hotel was to contribute to the local economy. Nearly 100 percent of the hotel staff were to be Haitian and nearly 100 percent of food supplies locally sourced. The Clinton Foundation helped broker the deal between the Caribbean cellular company the Digicel Group, which owns the hotel, and Marriott, as part of its work to encourage foreign and private sector investments in the country. The message the foundation hoped to send, reiterated in a trip Devex took to Haiti in 2015, was that despite the devastation of the 2010 earthquake, Haiti is open for business.

Last year, Marriott completed its acquisition of Starwood Hotels & Resorts, but staff from Marriott, which sent several representatives to the World Bank event last week, told Devex that size of brand can translate to scale of impact. Over the past two years, the company has engaged nearly 100 subject matter experts to build upon its social and environmental goals, including environmental impact, responsible sourcing, and youth employment and human rights. Marriott will announce these goals, which it has mapped to the SDGs, later this year, as part of the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.  

The SDGs provide targets for the tourism sector, said David Leventhal, whose work in sustainable real estate includes founding Playa Viva, a yoga retreat destination and treehouse hotel near Ixtapa, Mexico, and a project called Regenerative Resorts.

"What is more important is to communicate those goals to the guests and to have guests demand from their hosts, their hospitality and tourism providers, that those companies are considering and addressing the SDGs," he said. "So this must be both a supply and demand issue. The suppliers must communicate to guests what they are doing and guests demanding from suppliers, 'What are you doing to address the SDGs?'"

He expects that just as organic produce became mainstream, it will become more common for the tourism sector to aim for not just sustainability but regeneration, as even the larger operators see the benefits to business.

While the U.N. wants a clear roadmap to guide both tourists and the sector as a whole, it remains to be seen whether these best practices for travel and tourism can be taken to scale.

“These efforts should continue after this International Year [of Sustainable Tourism for Development] that is only the beginning of a new tourism sector worldwide,” Rifai said.

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About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Catherine also works for the Solutions Journalism Network, a non profit that trains and connects reporters to cover responses to problems.